Wherever fingerpickers gather, one name will often be uttered in a hushed whisper that of Tommy Emmanuel, the fleet-fingered Aussie who plays guitar as if he stole it. Douglas Noble checks out his chords, right-hand patterns, harmonics and more
Virtuoso picker Tommy Emmanuel started playing guitar aged four, and had a life-altering moment aged around seven or eight, when he first heard Chet Atkins. ‘I can’t remember the tune, but I remember the feeling that came over me,’ he said. ‘I got butterflies, and my heart was thumping, and I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know how to express it, but I knew that I loved it, and I knew that it was really special, and I said “I want to be able to do that.”‘
Chet Atkins‘ style of fingerpicking was based on Merle Travis‘ technique. Atkins: ‘While I play alternate bass strings which sounds more like a stride piano style, Merle played two bass strings simultaneously on the one and three beats, producing a more exciting solo rhythm, in my opinion. It was somewhat reminiscent of the great old black players.’
Of course, Emmanuel discovered Atkins‘ playing long before the days of tuition books, DVDs and YouTube. Initially he thought Atkins used a plectrum, and actually found a way of playing Atkins‘ songs with a pick. Eventually he discovered Atkins used a thumbpick, and his own style took off from there. ‘As soon as I got the thumbpick it was like someone opened the door and let the air in. It was just unbelievable. All these tunes just came flooding to me.’
So, Emmanuel‘s style is based on playing repeating bass patterns on the bottom strings with a thumbpick, while playing the melody on the upper strings with three fingers. He occasionally rests his pinky on the top of the guitar, and sometimes rests the palm of his plucking hand on the bass strings close to the bridge in order to produce a muted effect.
We’ve only got space here to touch upon a small range of Emmanuel‘s flatpicking, fingerpicking and percussive techniques – a battery of playing methods which make him a particularly exciting and expansive live performer. Exercises 1 to 7 look at Emmanuel‘s combination of melody with accompaniment; exercises 8 to 10 look at specific techniques used in some of the man’s favoured licks.